Category Archives: Business

Want choice with Bell TV? Move to Quebec

Bell TV (formerly Bell ExpressVu) announced on Friday that it will begin offering à la carte packages for customers in Quebec, in an obvious response to Videotron, which already offers à la carte packages.

Here’s a comparison chart to give you an idea of how they match head-to-head on à la carte packages:

Package Videotron Bell TV
Basic + 15 à la carte $37 $40
Basic + 20 à la carte $39 $44
Basic + 30 à la carte $47 $47
1 extra channel $2 $2
5 extra channels $5 N/A ($2×5=$10)
10 extra channels $10 N/A ($2×10=$20)
15 extra channels N/A ($5+$10=$15) $15
20 extra channels $15 $19
30 extra channels N/A ($10+$15=$25) $22

Both Bell and Videotron tack on a $3 “network access fee” and a 1.5% LPIF fee, neither of which are included in their advertised prices (and aren’t included in this table). None of the prices include installation, equipment rental, or bundle rebates (which is why Bell’s basic rates are $10 more than advertised).

It’s no coincidence that Bell’s basic + 30 is the same price as Videotron’s, that’s the whole point behind Bell’s offering, which is only available in Quebec. People in Ontario who might want to benefit from this aren’t allowed to for no good reason other than Bell is better able to screw them over.

CBC asked the Competition Bureau about this obviously targetted pricing, but they said it would actually increase competition between Bell and Videotron in Quebec, and be good for consumers here. That’s true, but it’s obviously unfair to consumers in Ontario and elsewhere who won’t have à la carte packages for the sole reason that Bell doesn’t have a competitor in those areas willing to offer that option.

The CRTC should look into this, and consider requiring direct-to-home satellite providers to give the same options to customers in all areas unless provincial or local regulations make different demands.

UPDATE: Elias Makos points out something I hadn’t noticed: Bell excludes a number of popular channels from its à la carte offering, including CNN, A&E, TLC, MuchMusic and Teletoon. You have to get a separate package for that.

In related news, Bell will also be offering remote DVR programming using Sling Media technology. This will be useful for people who forget to set their DVR to record a show while they’re gone – now they can go online and remotely program it from the office or wherever they are.

Congratulations, you’re an unsecured Canwest creditor

FTI Consulting, one of the groups of lawyers handling Canwest Limited Partnership’s creditor protection filing, has a section on its website devoted to the proceedings. There you can find, among other things, a list of creditors (PDF).

They include, of interest to Montrealers and Gazette followers (in alphabetical order):

  • $253,808.16 to 1001 Dominion Square Management Inc., The Gazette’s landlord
  • $12,726.14 to Agence France-Presse, a newswire
  • $406,505.42 to Amex for corporate credit cards
  • $6,556.34 to the Audit Bureau of Circulations
  • $47,497.80 to Bleu Blanc Rouge, which handles The Gazette’s marketing campaigns
  • $5,213.38 to Bloomberg, another newswire
  • $114,700.77 to the Calgary Flames
  • $74,763.18 to Canada Post
  • $44,237.47 to Canadian Press (even though Canwest no longer uses CP) – listed separately as Canadian Press and The Canadian Press
  • $5,179.91 to CNW for press releases
  • $38,892.90 to Garda for security services
  • $24,035.10 to Getty Images
  • $1 million exactly to GWL Realty Advisors of Edmonton, the largest single non-bank creditor
  • $24,419.64 to Henry’s photo shop
  • $44,100.00 to Ipsos Reid for surveys
  • $21,380.91 to La Presse
  • $22,575.00 to Kleintel, a Montreal-based phone survey company
  • $28,041.92 to, a partner for paid obituaries online
  • $10,450.00 to Loblaws
  • $12,167.94 to the Los Angeles Times – Washington Post, another news service
  • $16,558.62 to Messageries Dynamiques, a Quebecor-owned distribution company
  • $52,783.50 to Microsoft Canada
  • $145,026.49 to the Ministère du revenu du Québec
  • $8,475.66 to the National Newspaper Awards
  • $17,931.06 to Nestle Canada
  • $5,065.31 to New York Times Digital
  • $9,946.29 to the Ontario Press Council
  • $50,400.00 to Orsyp Logiciels, a Montreal-based job schedule software company
  • $90,000.00 to the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux
  • $72,930.38 to Rexall Sports Corporation, which owns the Edmonton Oilers
  • $37,153.20 to Rogers Media
  • $34,755.00 to Rogers Publishing
  • $11,841.84 to Saxotech Integrated Mediaware, which is providing a new desktop publishing system for Canwest papers
  • $331,160.57 to, which … well, it’s anyone’s guess what they actually do.
  • $70,987.96 to Sun Media
  • $15,813.11 to Montreal’s Teleze Inc., a telemarketing company selling Gazette subscriptions
  • $87,499.65 to the Globe and Mail
  • $8,065.02 to New York Times Syndication, yet another news wire
  • $54,485.00 to the Salvation Army in Saskatoon
  • $145,341.3 to Toronto Star Syndication Services and Torstar Syndication Services
  • $10,773.90 to (Chicago) Tribune Media Services
  • $27,151.49 to United Way in Edmonton
  • $6,124.99 to the Winnipeg Free Press
  • $112,481.44 to the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia
  • $15,491.17 to World Entertainment News Network for celebrity gossip
  • $45,986.85 to three radio stations
  • $45,437.84 to four union locals

The list is very long, but two items stand out like a sore thumb because of the extra digits, and those are the ones that really matter in all this:

  • $78,382,191.78 to the syndicate of banks under the senior subordinate credit agreement
  • $449,411,375.34 to senior subordinated notes

That’s (some of) the money Canwest LP owes the banks, and the reason it’s in financial trouble.

What the list doesn’t include, though, are freelancers, those independent contractors who provide stories and photos to newspapers in exchange for a negotiated fee. Most freelancers who did work between mid December and the Jan. 8 filing (and some who did work much earlier than that but weren’t paid or didn’t cash their cheques before the filing) are now grouped in with the paper suppliers, wire services, distributors and anyone else who provides goods and services to the newspapers and websites.

I counted two freelance columnists in The Gazette on the list through their companies:

  • $5,418.00 to L. Ian MacDonald’s Lian Public Affairs Ltd.
  • $9,673.79 to Phil Reimer’s Phil Reimer Communications. He’s Canwest’s travel cruise columnist

Other freelancers, including fine dining columnist Lesley Chesterman, are also out thousands of dollars as a result of this filing. Smaller freelancers (which may include myself, I’m still not sure yet) are out mere hundreds of dollars.

Whether they’ll see any of that money owed depends on how much money is left to give to all the other creditors, and that will depend mostly on the sale price of Canwest LP. The banks have set a floor bid of $950 million, the amount they’re owed for their loans (which means they wouldn’t be paying for the chain but rather exchanging their debt for equity and ownership), but they’re hoping someone will put in a higher bid. The higher the sale price, the more money can go to creditors. But there’s little hope that the price will be high enough to pay 100 cents on the dollar.

That’s very disappointing. The banks won’t fold if they’re out a few hundred million. The wire services aren’t a few thousand dollars from bankruptcy. But some freelancers rely on it as their only source of income, and a few hundred dollars can be the difference between making a rent payment and having an angry landlord.

After Canwest LP filed for creditor protection (not to be confused with bankruptcy, which eliminates debt), it secured so-called debtor-in-posession financing, which allowed it to continue its business. This means that people who did freelance work after Jan. 8 will still get paid (along with other post-filing creditors), as publisher Alan Allnutt explained. That also puts many in a strange position of getting screwed out of payment but still continuing to do business with a company.

If only I understood business, it would all make sense to me.

I, for one, welcome our new consortium overlords

Over the past few months, rumours had been circulating around the newsroom that some local rich guys were interested in buying a part of the Canwest newspaper chain, including The Gazette.

Today, those rumours prove true. A consortium led by Jerry Grafstein, Raymond Heard and Beryl Wajsman announced it will be submitting a bid to buy The Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post, pending due dilligence.

The coverage – Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, CBC, Reuters, Editor & Publisher, Financial Post – all say the same thing, quoting liberally from the news release and saying the three consortium leaders believe in local control of local newspapers.

No price has been mentioned, nor are the other financial backers named.

All three have media cred: Grafstein, a recently retired senator, founded Citytv in Toronto. Heard was managing editor of the Montreal Star and then worked as news director at Global TV in the 80s. Wajsman is the editor of The Suburban and publisher of The Métropolitain. The Globe’s Jane Taber has analysis of their political leanings, in case anyone really cares.

Unions (and unionized employees) look favourably at the central idea of this bid (Lise Lareau of the Canadian Media Guild calls it good news) because it seems to reject a lot of Canwest’s anti-union moves, like centralization and outsourcing, and it’s making all the right noises about local control of local newspapers.

There’s also the unsaid implication that these three care more about respect than profit. (Like sports teams, media outlets tend to be more about ego than the bottom line.)

Looking at Wajsman’s newspapers, there’s at least some reason for optimism. The Suburban is big for a community paper, and while it’s not pure as the white snow, it’s not filled with press releases and it does actually employ journalists. The Métropolitain, meanwhile, is more of a think-tank than anything else, and is clearly not motivated by profit.

But looking at those newspapers also leaves some worried. Wajsman’s editorials are a bit much for even some staunch federalists, and the papers have some clear editorial biases when it comes to things like the Israeli-Palestinian issue (something the Suburban doesn’t have to deal with much but which The Gazette would have to deal with on a daily basis).

Many will also focus on Wajsman’s political past. One person reminded me of his alleged connection to the adscam scandal, others have already created a Facebook group to protest his bid because of his pro-Israel, pro-business, anti-union stances.

Though I disagree with most of what he writes in Suburban editorials (and most of the opinions written in The Métropolitain), I’m tempted to ask how a right-wing, pro-Israel owner will somehow be different than Canwest. And if “progressive anglos” don’t want their paper to fall in his hands, they’re more than welcome to submit a bid of their own.

There are other obstacles to Grafstein and Co.’s plan, even if they have the money. The biggest is that Canwest (and the banks arranging for the chain’s sale) want Canwest Publications sold as a unit. That centralized services include websites, customer service, advertising, page layout and Canwest News Service. Undoing that might be difficult and expensive (but it might also mean hiring more journalists, programmers and copy editors, which would clearly work in my favour).

And there might be other bids. The Globe is convinced Paul Godfrey is putting one together with his own financial backers. Other names being bandied about include Torstar, Quebecor, Transcontinenal, FP Newspapers and that guy Joe at the end of the bar.

The Bay hates Canada

First they gave us those awful clothes for the 2008 games in Beijing.

Now, The Bay is offering U.S. Olympic team apparel in their stores:

Clearly The Bay has either given up on this country or, worse, is purposefully trying to undermine it. Perhaps they are being influenced by an evil foreign power, or they’ve become distracted by pretty American things, or maybe we just did something to piss them off.

Either way, as Canadians, we must rise up and perform our duty, assert our national identity and show the world we are Canadian.

I will be the first.

Hey U.S.A., sorry aboot all that, eh?

Future Shop fails again at service in French

Two years ago, blogger François Rodrigue noticed a page on Future Shop’s website with absolutely atrocious French. I blogged about it, some other people did too, and Future Shop responded by taking the page down and blaming it on a U.S.-based subcontractor.

In not-entirely-apologizing for the transgression, and reasserting the priority they place on communicating in a proper language in Quebec, spokesperson Thierry Lopez promised that “nous faisons évidemment tout notre possible pour que des erreurs telles que celle-ci ne se reproduisent pas.”

Flash-forward to a few days ago, while I’m on Future Shop’s website looking through the Boxing Day sales. A window pops up asking if I want to be part of a customer service survey, produced by a Michigan-based company called ForeSee Results.

For fun, I decided to choose French as my language. I got a window similar to this that popped up, and a survey in adequate enough French (though half the accents didn’t work). I clicked on the bottom where it said “politique de confidentialité”, wanting to know what this information would be used for.

Imagine my surprise when “politique de confidentialité”, as well as all the other links on the bottom of that survey, led to an English-only page.

Another U.S.-based subcontractor, another translation fail. You’d think they’d start learning from this.

I asked for comment from Lopez concerning this latest gaffe. Haven’t heard anything yet, but will update if there is a response.

Oh yeah, that Canwest thing

Over the past week, I’ve had people ask me about Canwest’s financial situation. Are they selling their assets? Will there be an auction? Is Paul Godfrey buying the newspapers? Are executives getting huge bonuses? Was Leonard Asper to blame? Did the company not do enough to reduce its debt? Does ScotiaBank own the newspapers now? Are people being fired and losing severance? Will pensions be worthless? Is this somehow Conrad Black’s fault? Will Global TV be owned by Americans? Can the newspapers survive? Will this affect programming? Will Leonard Asper get thrown out?

I wish I could tell you I knew the answers to these questions, as I am an employee of a Canwest newspaper, but the reality is that I don’t know any more than you do. Canwest is a publicly-traded company (okay, it was a publicly-traded company), and as such anything at those upper levels has to be divulged to shareholders (via press releases) before it’s told to the company’s thousands of front-line employees. So I don’t know any more than what’s been reported through those releases and in the media. Neither does my boss. Neither does my boss’s boss.

So everything is out there. CBC does a pretty good job of explaining the issues (and getting the facts right). Or you can get it from the horse’s mouth on Canwest’s public restructuring info page, complete with video of Leonard Asper.

For those too lazy to read everything, these are the facts as I’ve been told them from the company (and has been publicly released):

  • The company that filed for creditor protection is called Canwest Media Inc. It owns the National Post, the Global Television Network, three cable channels (DejaView, Fox Sports World, and MovieTime) and the corporate office. You can see a diagram here (PDF). Canwest Limited Partnership is the company that owns the other newspapers (including my employer The Gazette), and the former Alliance Atlantis channels are owned by CW Media, which as its own structure. Neither those companies nor the parent company Canwest Global Communications Corp. has filed for creditor protection.
  • Nothing has changed at the operational level, either on the affected side or the non-affected side. There’s obviously a lot of concern among those inside and outside the company (and that might affect things like advertising contracts), but nothing has been shut down. Employees are still getting paid, and invoices are still being processed.
  • Other than the National Post Company being transferred from the Canwest Media side to the Canwest LP side (to join the other newspapers), there has been no official word on the sale or reconfiguration of any assets.
  • The creditor protection filing comes with a pre-packaged deal with 70% of some class of creditors (I’m not a business expert here, read the stories if you care), so it is expected to go through this credit-for-equity swap relatively painlessly. Negotiating this deal (and the sale of Australia’s Network Ten) is why the company has gotten extension after extension on debt-related deadlines over the past few months.
  • Canwest LP (the newspaper side) still has a lot of debt (about $1 billion) of its own, which means there will be some restructuring on that side as well. There has been no word on whether a creditor protection filing would be part of that.
  • The television networks and newspapers are still profitable, and no matter what happens to Canwest they are expected to survive.

Admittedly, I’m drinking the company Kool-Aid here. Some of these things may change, or they might not. Everything we know for sure has already been released.

It would be easy for me to speculate on possible avenues here, but the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and others are perfectly content to do that with their anonymous sources, and they’re probably in a better position than me to do so. Maybe what they say is true, maybe it’s not. I don’t know any more than you do, and it would be irresponsible and counter-productive to make wild guesses about the future of this media giant.

Go ahead and make up your own theories. But just remember there are thousands of families who depend on Canwest properties to put food on the table.

Rogers reverse graffiti ads are a ridiculous waste

A worker pressure-washes the sidewalk through a Rogers ad template

A worker pressure-washes the sidewalk through a Rogers ad template

The other night, leaving work just after midnight, I noticed a pair of guys with a truck doing some cleaning. It’s not uncommon for graffiti removal pressure-washing to take place late at night downtown, since that’s when pedestrian and other traffic is at its lowest.

But I noticed something odd: They were spraying a board of some sort.

The Rogers template up close

The Rogers template up close

Getting a closer look, I saw it was an ad for Rogers, and put two and two together: these guys were part of some guerilla marketing campaign for Rogers, engaging in “reverse graffiti

Now, reverse graffiti is not a new concept. It’s been used before to great effect artistically, and it’s been usurped by corporate forces too. So despite what the marketing genius behind this thinks, there’s no new ground being broken here.

But that’s not what bothers me.

Continue reading

Inside Bill 60

Laurent Maisonnave on his iPhone

Laurent Maisonnave on his iPhone, not that he'd ever cancel his contract unilaterally

The Quebec Liberals this week announced Bill 60, proposed legislation that would strengthen (or “modernize“) consumer protections particularly where it concerns long-term service contracts like cellphones. The bill has already (and unsurprisingly) gained the support of the Union des consommateurs, and others. Cellphone providers have stayed silent for the most part, though their advocacy group says the bill is redundant because the industry is already looking to self-regulate (those who buy this please raise your hands).

The full text of the bill is online (PDF). It hasn’t been debated in the National Assembly yet, so it could very well be changed significantly before it becomes law.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Changes to contracts must come with 60 days’ notice and the consumer has the ability to cancel the contract without penalty if the changes involve “an increase in the consumer’s obligations or a reduction in the merchant’s obligations”
  • Such changes can’t affect “an essential element of the contract” like the nature of the service offered
  • Fixed-term service contracts can’t be unilaterally cancelled by the provider
  • Consumers can’t be required to pay penalty fees beyond simple interest charges for missed payments
  • Merchants are required to fully explain existing warranties before asking customers if they would like extended warranties
  • If you buy an item second-hand that’s still under warranty, manufacturers can’t require that you prove the previous owner abided by the warranty’s conditions
  • Gift certificates and gift cards cannot have expiry dates, and must come with written explanations of how to check the balance on them. They also cannot be subject to fees
  • Contracts must come with various things in writing, including the total dollar value of “inducements” (like free cellphones)
  • Contracts cannot be automatically renewed
  • You can’t be charged for service while the device you use to access that service (assuming it was provided with the contract) is being repaired
  • Consumers can unilaterally cancel contracts and pay back the value of any inducements provided at contract signing (or 10% of the remainder of the contract, or $50, depending on the circumstance)
  • Advertisements must include the full cost of services, less taxes (though it’s hard to see how this would be enforced since cellphones, cable, Internet and other services come with different plans)
  • In case a company breaks any of these provisions, the government or a recognized consumer advocacy body can seek an injunction forcing the provider to comply
  • The bill also contains some minor provisions dealing with travel agents

A lot of these are common sense (no one should be allowed to unilaterally change a contract without the other side’s consent, and companies shouldn’t get free money out of gift cards). Others will probably be criticized because they allow loopholes that lead to abuse (for example, if I know Rogers is about to change their contract, can I get a three-year free iPhone deal and then cancel the contract a week later without paying a penalty and get a free iPhone?). Still others are open to interpretation (we could expect arguments about whether a certain change really increases the obligation of a consumer).

Others sound like they could be downright annoying, like being forced to sit down while a Best Buy employee reads out the complete text of a manufacturer’s warranty to you.

But all in all, it’s a good bill, and provides some valuable protections for consumers against abusive contracts. Law-abiding businesses should be able to point out loopholes that might be exploited against them, but let’s hope the lobbyists don’t start torpedoing parts of this bill just because it might cut down on their bottom line.

My cable bill and Videotron’s profits

My monthly bill to Videotron passed a milestone this month, crossing the $100 barrier and sitting at $100.38 for my Internet and digital cable.

In April 2008, the bill was $94.74 a month.

Nothing has changed in the amount of service I get. The increase of $5.64 a month is due entirely to Videotron’s price hikes:

I could understand this if Videotron’s costs were going up and it needed the extra money to stay afloat, but according to Quebecor’s financial statements, Videotron makes a shitload of money. Like, $800 million in profit off $1.8 billion in revenue. Not only are those numbers higher than any other unit of the megacorporation, but the profit margin is way, way higher than Quebecor’s newspaper or broadcasting divisions.

Even if you take amortization and capital costs out of the equation, that leaves $165 million of profit for Videotron, more than enough to cover interest payments on its $1.8 billion debt.

I’m not that great with quarterly statements, so my numbers might be off here. But Videotron is making a heck of a lot of money off me and other cable subscribers.

No wonder Canada is considered to have the most overpriced broadband Internet in the developed world.

Globe’s solution to recession: Add managers

The Globe and Mail is rearranging the deck chairs reinventing itself to create a sustainable future, and just days after excitedly launching a redesigned website, Editor-in-Chief Edward Greenspon has been fired, replaced by Report on Business editor John Stackhouse.

In a memo to employees from publisher Phil Crawley that’s filled with corpspeak, there’s lots of talk about a new focus on digital (I thought they were already focused on digital), and the news that he will be adding another senior executive to take on technology responsibilities that were under the VP of operations.

So as the paper cuts 90 staff in response to a recession, it is adding a new employee at the top.

Sadly, the Globe is not unique in thinking that guys in suits writing memos about synergy and “reimagination-inspired teamwork” are solutions to their problems instead of expensive wastes of offices and salaries.

Canwest: Still here

Everyone expected there would be yet another extension in the Canwest interest payment saga, but the company that signs my paycheques also announced it has gotten another $175 million in financing, which is a good thing I think.

The reports from Reuters, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Canadian Press and the Financial Post use the same long business terms as the press release, like “senior secured revolving asset-based loan facility”, but from what my business-challenged mind can gather, there’s another deadline coming on June 15, when the company has to present a restructuring plan.

Sharx: Canada’s credit hell

Sharx Pool Bar at Ste. Catherine and Guy

Sharx Pool Bar at Ste. Catherine and Guy

Sharx, a pool/bowling bar on Ste. Catherine St. W.,  has a reputation as an elegant, relaxing place to spend an evening and have fun with your friends. It’s a perennial favourite in the Mirror’s Best of Montreal under the “best pool hall” category, which it won again this year.

But thanks to an article in the New York Times on Sunday, it now has the additional honour of being the most credit-unfriendly place in Canada.

It’s not Sharx’s fault, but apparently, according to a study done in 2002 based off data from Canadian Tire credit cards, 47% of people who used their cards here missed a credit card payment over the next 12 months. That’s higher than anywhere else in the country.

(Of course, this only applies to people who use Canadian Tire credit cards at Sharx. Perhaps those who use cash or bank-issued cards are more trustworthy with credit?)

Thankfully, such fine-tuned criticism of people’s credit card histories isn’t the norm (yet), because of concern from the industry that people might resent the companies knowing so much about them.

Especially when they can’t always be trusted with that data.

Loblaws offers free* green bin

Loblaws green bin

From The Gazette’s Green Life blog: Loblaws is giving away free green shopping bins to people who buy at least $60 worth of groceries (not including alcohol and other non-food stuff) and have this coupon, until April 30.

As a regular user of the green bin, I can attest that it’s the most convenient way of hauling a medium-size load of groceries home (so long as you don’t use the stairs too much). My only quibble is that if you’re spending $60 on groceries, you’re probably not going to be able to fit it all into the bin (or if you do, it’s going to be really heavy).